A. Neimark / F. Roche / Los Angeles / december 2009
AN: Do you have a portrait to fit with this interview ?
FR: NO. You asked if I had an portrait to go with the interview ! For fifteen years now, we censured our own portrait to represent R&Sie(n), we use an Avatar. This digital hermaphrodite is not only a kind of fantasy, a coquetry, it s a strategy of de-personalizing.
AN: Is the avatar a kind of simulacrum?
FR: The avatar de-personifies the architect. It allows us to talk from somewhere else, not directly from “me.” The identity of this character has allowed us to be as we want. I can lead my daily life without being a representation of what I am expected to be. It’s a way for us at R&Sie(n) to detach ourselves from the fragile egotism of the architect.
AN: Do you see the avatar as a construction of a character, as in fiction?
FR: In a way. The character allows us to construct a schizophrenic identity that constantly changes its personality. There is an American movie from the 70s, Sybil, about a girl with sixteen different personalities that offer her the possibility of being multiplied many times over. Schizophrenia is a strategy of resistance. Resistance is a term that I am borrowing from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. The tactic of using the multiple identity disorder allows one to speak from somewhere unpredictable using a language that is unpredictable and with an appearance that is unpredictable.
AN: So do you use this separation of the architect from his public representation as a way to create architectural narratives that escape one singular interpretation?
FR: Architecture is a tool for articulating narrative. It’s not a final static product. In Hybrid Muscle we designed a little building in Thailand’s countryside and we added an animal to animate the project. The albino buffalo labored in lieu of an engine to generate electricity that powered light bulbs and laptops. We were interested in designing the animal into the architecture. So what was in reality a staged performance seemed traditional in this countryside setting. It looked like a ritual that blurred the boundary between the modern hygienic building and the animal that made it dirty. So the animal was constantly shitting and stinking, but it was also producing electricity. We could have put a photovoltaic cell in place of the animal, but it was more interesting to create this uncomfortable relationship. And in the end, the juxtaposition of the animal and the building did not appear exotic; the ceremony seemed to be totally normal in the local situation.
AN: I’d like to segue from the narratives in your projects that you call “scenarios” or, in this case, a “ritual,” to digital scripts that also structure many of your architectural decisions. Could you talk about the scripts and whether you see them as parallel or contradictory to the narrative-based scenarios?
FR: Any algorithm has a fundamentally linguistic dimension. For instance: How could I ask to my mother to buy two baguettes, if I add a little bit more to also get some candy without to scare my mother on the real price of the baguette ? This child problem is an algorithm, but with a non-deterministic approach, with a fuzzy logic. This is not so far from the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s rewriting of the tale of Bluebeard through mathematics. Badiou uses algorithms to develop a strategy that articulates subjectivities and fuzzy logic through the theory of belonging. Bluebeard and his five wives constitute a global system that cannot be reduced to the addition of any particular relation between the monster and its five victims. The assembly of each element in this closed system is greater than the whole. The addition of indeterminacy to the choice of the next victim cannot be described by a probabilistic approach that considers the sum of its parts. In other words, ΣFx<∩Fx, if Fx is the relational function between the monster and each wife.
AN: So are you treating the digital script as a verbal act of communication?
FR: Not quite. We do not say “if, then, therefore” all the time; we mostly settle for “maybe” or for “perhaps.” But it is difficult to integrate “maybe” and “perhaps” into computational language.
AN: The “maybe” and the “perhaps” are conditionals that can destabilize a script. Can you invite unpredictability, the “maybe” or the “perhaps,” into your digital inputs?
FR: It all depends on the input that drives the machine. Is it purely an input of trajectories which are totally predictable, totally computational? Or can we integrate a strategy of conflict into the script, a strategy of disruption into the linear process? For example, in the 1920s, Maurice Maeterlinck conducted research on the morphology of the termite mound. He discovered that termites, which are blind, need to construct and deconstruct their mound in order to constantly regulate the temperature in the queen’s chamber, to keep it at equilibrium, thereby ensuring the reproduction and the survival of the termite community. So the termites constantly close the door or open it to bring in fresh air or to isolate the chamber according to the outside temperature. Depending on the position of the sun, day after day, they modify the position of the chamber using a kind of pheromonal GPS. They smell themselves; they smell their own trajectories and redefine their position or the conditions in which they are working. And because they are opening and closing the door all the time, the direction of the wind inside the mound is constantly changing. Of course, their pheromones are incredibly sensitive to the wind, and so the termites constantly struggle to redefine the zero point of their GPS, to regulate their own position. They construct something that modifies the way they position themselves. This conflict produces incredible structures constantly reorganizing the shape of the termite mound because its construction can never be stabilized by a predictive design. It’s always a work in progress.
AN: So, in a sense, you would need to collaborate with a termite to destabilize your own inputs! Your proposal is that machines can be imbued with intelligence. Could you describe what you mean by the skyzoid machine, a term that appears in the title of your lecture here at USC?
FR: Our concept of the skyzoid machine is based on Marcel Duchamp’s Bachelor Machine. It’s a machine which is not cybernetic. In other words, it’s a machine that does not define only on its efficient mode of production. The skyzoid machine pretends to do something while doing something else, thus creating a confusion about the degree of its functionality, the extent by which it belongs to science. Immediately, it questions the limits of the technology and its place in production. So the machine actually participates in creating a blurriness.
AN: Do you mean that even the machine participates in the production of culture?
FR: Yes, the machine’s role is not to simply produce something in the phantasm of efficiency. The machine is both a freak and an operating system at the same time. We try to introduce an unpredictable behavior, or a fuzzy logic, to explicate the confusion between what “they” pretend to do and what “they” are actually doing. In other words, the skyzoid machine completely changes your relationship to reality, leading to paranoia. Because all paranoia produces a parallel reality in your mind, filtering perception, you can perceive it and describe it through fiction. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland operates on an immediate level when he introduces illogic through pure logic, what in French one would call le malentendu. Malentendu – the wrongly heard or misunderstood – is a tool of linguistic exchange; it is a kind of stutter. We need misunderstanding or stuttering in order to communicate.
AN: The stutter defines a moment of misunderstanding between the physiology of the brain and the structure of language, where something misfires. The machine breaks down. It’s a kind of mental or biological sabotage. For the project Terra Incognita that you worked on with Pierre Huyghe, you created an automaton, an albino penguin, a machine with intelligence or with emotion, whose operational functions broke when they became rusty. Do you see this as a contemporary version of the 18th century Digesting Duck automaton by Jacques de Vaucanson?
FR: Yes! It’s not so far from Vaucanson! You know when he presented the Digesting Duck there was a huge debate about the mechanism inside. Everyone asked: Is it possible to mechanically model the fantastic process of digestion? But after he revealed that there was no mechanism inside, that the duck automaton held two disconnected chambers for food and shit, that no chemical reaction took place, he was right away rejected by the scientific community. Immediately, he was denounced as a charlatan. It’s quite an interesting story. Before, he was a genius! Before, he was a prophet! But at the instant of disclosure, he went from prophet to impostor. Where is the real : in the trick, in the mechanism of the trick, in the illusion to recreate life as the Golem of Rabbi Loew, or in the morale of the bourgeoisie which disqualified Vaucanson, for his misleading.
AN: But wouldn’t you say that he was both rejected and elevated? Vaucanson went from a scientist to a cultural producer. I am curious to hear about the roles that science and culture play in your penguin odyssey.
FR: When you decide to go on an odyssey, you need to prepare. The preparation of the odyssey can become even more important than the objective of the odyssey itself. So the preparation became an odyssey all its own. In the first part, we needed to come up with a story to justify our trip to the South Pole, which would not be the real story of why we were actually going there. It’s very similar to scientific practice. In science, you come up with a hypothetic or fake objective and you continue to broadcast this objective of the experiment until you discover the character of the artifact produced by the actual experiment. So we decided to do research on the “albino penguin” and to come back with the proof that an albino penguin existed. In order to guarantee that we would come back from the Antarctic with the penguin, we had to bring the penguin to the Antarctic.
AN: So you built the penguin before you went?
FR: I don’t remember…We came to the South Pole to film something that we built at home and brought with us on the boat. But I’m not sure it was the penguin….like Vaucanson’s duck, he was not a perfect machine. But on this schizoid odyssey we found evidence of how global warming was and still is transforming the topography of the South Pole. We documented evidence of new mountains appearing out from under the melting snow. We were perhaps the first humans to walk on some of these new cliffs. They had never been naked like that before; they had always been hidden under meters of snow and ice. So as ethnologists we came back to Europe with the report of this transformation. We developed a new island through a honeycomb aluminum structure in the Tate Modern and the MAM Paris. This island reacted to its environmental conditions; it appeared and disappeared responding to the evaporation of water in the space of the museum. The project modeled a dynamic process, not only to promote a fight against global warming, but also to visualize its transformative effects.
AN: Your architecture is always in dialogue with nature, primitive and wild, or hybrid and industrial. Can you elaborate on how you see the role of nature in your work?
FR: Yes. There is a big debate about what kind of nature we want to preserve – do we want to preserve the nature we create, our industrial nature, or do we want to preserve the very rare and confrontational primitive nature, the risky nature, the wild? There is a beautiful movie called Charisma by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The plot revolves around a grove of trees from the dinosaur period. The trees seem very weak and fragile and the community wants to preserve them as a testament to its history and the distant past. But at some point the trees begin to produce a toxin and they completely intoxicate the ground and begin to kill the forest all around them. Of course, the community decides to burn the trees, to burn the dinosaur, to burn Jurassic Park. The inhabitants wage war against the nature that is not domesticated, that endangers their industrial environment. But we want to ask the question, can we de-domesticate nature through architecture? In the project I’mlostinParis, we constructed a house in the middle of Paris with glass beakers in which we grew Rhizobium, a bacterium that boosts the production of nitrogen. This chemical hydroponic wall elaborates a relationship between Eros and Thanatos, between the moralism of green architecture and the fear stemming from the manipulation of bacteria as an alchemical process. Nature is wild and heterotopic, not exactly the dream of Disney with its ideal domesticated nature.
AN: Is your goal then to introduce risk and danger into our otherwise tame, domestic life?
FR: Our aim is to articulate antagonistic forces and to make visible their intrinsic nature, both on their own and in the way that they conflict with one another. We are pushed and pulled in many directions. We are both hostage to and dominated by the multiplicity and the arrogance of disorder. We can neither reduce the noise in a fake reductive strategy nor increase it by cynicism. R&Sie(n) is a tool of permanent negotiation between Faust and Mephisto; it is a tool of the illusion of power.